Hello, Health

This is how you must eat your vitamins

We are what we absorb (and not just what we eat).

 |  Hello, Health  |  4-minute read |   17-04-2017
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Nutritional deficiencies are becoming an epidemic. Almost everyone has some or the other micro-nutrient lacking in the body: B vitamins, calcium, iron, Vitamin D, zinc — the list is endless.

But just taking supplements or carefully curating high-nutrient menus is not the solution because the fact is that nutrient absorption can vary.

So there is no point dumping huge amounts of nutrients in the body, unless their absorption is efficient. After all, we are what we absorb (and not just what we eat).

First the boosters

Digestive enzymes help metabolise food into digestible nutrients for absorption and use by the body. These active protein (amino acids) compounds like amylase, lactase, lipase, and protease, are produced in the body by the GI tract, but some help from foods that have them in plenty is always welcome.


So scoop up enzymes like bromelain (in pineapple) and papa in (papaya) at every opportunity.

Also, zero in on other foods that promote enzyme production: banana, cucumbers, garlic, onions, coconut, yoghurt, mushrooms and honey.

Probiotics are always helpful, as they change the flora of the gut by boosting good bacteria, to make absorption of nutrients better.

Prebiotics help too, as these help feed the probiotics. And the good news is that you can probably get all the prebiotics you need by eating plenty of fresh veggies rich in soluble fibre like cauliflower, spinach and other leafy greens, as well as garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus and bananas.

palak-paneer_0525150_041717051540.jpg Think probiotic? Think spinach.

Certain combinations work. For example, foods that are high in vitamin C help enhance our ability to absorb iron, especially those from vegetarian sources. Medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) like those present in coconut oil help with the absorption of antioxidants and other nutrients from food (yes, that's why cooking in coconut oil is a good idea).

Similarly, adding a dressing to a salad helps the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins from the vegetables and fruits (A, D, E and K) better.

It turns out that the body needs a little bit of fat to digest these vitamins and the same goes for countless antioxidants that we hope to score from vegetables.

Some foods are best eaten raw or when lightly cooked. Heat breaks down vitamin B1, vitamin B5, folate, and vitamin C, so you get more of these when you eat them uncooked or lightly cooked.

On the other hand, some foods deliver more nutrients when cooked. For example, cooking significantly increases bioavailability of lycopene, found in tomatoes, and beta carotene, found in red/orange/yellow plants like tomatoes, carrots, sweet potato, and spinach.

It also denatures protein in eggs and meat, making them much more digestible. Cooking also makes iron and other minerals more available for absorption by decreasing oxalates that bind to these minerals.

tamatar_041717051844.jpg Go for lightly cooked tomatoes. 

Finally, chewing your food really well helps ease the digestion process as this is where chemical and mechanical digestion begins.

Plus, it also alkalises the food thanks to bicarbonate ions present in saliva besides activating another enzyme, cellulose, which begins the breakdown of fibre.

Now the spoilers

Alcohol interferes with the absorption of nutrients in the body. B vitamins particularly B1, B3 and folate and Vitamin A are especially affected, but alcohol can also keep your body from fully absorbing and using zinc, iron, calcium and folic acid.

Smokers, besides the toxins they take in, also deplete the body of vital nutrients with each puff. Their bodies tend to be deficient in vitamin C, as they use it in excess to detoxify. And such deficiency leads to iron deficiency too. Calcium absorption too is greatly jeopardised in smokers. So quit smoking today. No two ways about it.


Tannins in tea hinder the absorption of iron and zinc from foods and caffeine in coffee reduces our body's ability to absorb dietary calcium and also increases its excretion via the kidneys.

So drink tea at least half an hour before/after the meals, and take your iron and calcium supplements two hours before/after your cuppa. Coffee and soft drinks (sodas) too contain caffeine, and can lead to bone loss.

Some medicines like aspirin, beta blockers, antacids, anti inflammatory, anti-ulcer and diabetes-control drugs can decrease your body's ability to absorb vitamins (particularly D, A, C and E, and B12).

Antibiotics too disturb the bacterial flora in the intestine (kill the good digestion-aiding bacteria), which also affects absorption.

Long-term use of contraceptive pills may deplete three B vitamins: folic acid, B12 and B6, as well as zinc and magnesium.

So keep a check on the pills that you are popping.

Also read: Foods smokers must eat if they can't kick the habit


Kavita Devgan Kavita Devgan @kavitadevgan

The writer is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa).

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